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John Abercrombie: The First Quartet

Mark Sullivan By

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In many ways guitarist John Abercrombie's recordings with his first quartet represent his real coming of age, as a jazz guitarist, composer, and bandleader. He already had a substantial ECM discography behind him, including his fusion debut Timeless (1975); the overdubbed solo record Characters (1977); the first trio with Dave Holland and Jack DeJohnette, the self-titled Gateway (1975); and his first duet record with acoustic guitarist Ralph Towner, Sargasso Sea (1976).

But many of these recordings (and others he participated in earlier) could be classified as either chamber jazz or "fusion" (quoted in John Kelman's extensive liner notes, Abercrombie joked that he played on some of the worst fusion records made in the 70s)—and he wanted to make music that was unambiguously jazz, to return to his musical roots. There would be only original music: Abercrombie liked the songs his friends were writing, and was increasingly coming into his own as a composer. He initially featured an electric mandolin tuned like a guitar, but an octave higher, guaranteeing a fresh group sound. The quartet with pianist Richie Beirach, bassist George Mraz and drummer Peter Donald was active from 1978 to 1981. They recorded three albums for ECM, and performed steadily. They were a true working band, Abercrombie's first as a leader.

The group had chemistry immediately. Even though they consider the playing on Arcade (1979) to be tentative, it does not sound like it. In fact in many ways it is still the most attractive record the group made. Abercrombie makes a strong compositional statement with the opening title tune, a stately theme which also introduces the mandolin guitar, a distinctive soprano voice. Beirach's "Nightlake" also has a memorable singing theme, as does "Neptune" (lovely bowing by bassist Mraz). His final contribution is the plaintive closer "Alchemy," also the longest track. Abercrombie describes the record as "pretty," and indeed it is, in the best way. Recorded at Oslo's Talent Studio—it would be several years before the label would routinely record American artists in New York—it has that expansive ECM "fjord echo" (as label head Manfred Eicher described it). If the group was tentative, it only adds to the big lush sound and the meditative atmosphere that characterizes ECM releases from this period, many of them now rightfully considered classics.

This many years later, it may be difficult to appreciate how radically Abercrombie changed his guitar tone for this project, since most of his recordings since then have employed a similar sound (with the notable exception of his brief fling with the guitar synthesizer, which even then was rarely used exclusively). His previous setup in group settings had frequently involved effects pedals, and he hadn't really settled on anything. Here he adopted a more straightforward tone, one more in line with mainstream jazz guitar. At the time he said "it's really the sound I've always wanted."

By the time the group reconvened to record Abercrombie Quartet (1979) they had logged considerable touring time, playing both music from Arcade and new material that would appear on this album. So it's an altogether more energetic affair, and the album that Abercrombie considers most representative of how the quartet sounded live. After a deceptive rubato introduction, "Blue Wolf" launches into an energetic vamp, the whole band playing more assertively than they had on the debut. The arrangements are more varied as well: "Dear Rain" begins with a bass solo, while "Foolish Dog" introduces a twelve-string guitar into the mix. All of these tracks were written by Abercromie, making for an equal compositional contribution this time out, a pattern which continued on the following album. Beirach's most memorable tune is "Riddles," an insistent theme with a rock feel, and a rare drum solo from Donald.

The final album M (1980) found the group struggling a bit to avoid repeating themselves, but again the struggle is not apparent in the recorded results. The experimental attitude shows up right away, with the atmospheric sounds that open "Boat Song," setting the seaside mood implied by the song's title. The album's title tune features 12-string guitar in the lead. Beirach's "What Are The Rules" may be titled ironically, as collective rubato playing only resolves to the theme at the end. It's an energetic, memorable theme—with more of a bebop feel than previously—and "Flashback" continues with the same energy. Abercrombie's "To Be" is a ballad featuring acoustic guitar, an instrument that had previously only been employed for light overdubs. Bassist Mraz get the final word with "Pebbles," the only selection on all three albums not composed by Abercrombie or Beirach. While M lacks the beauty of Arcade and the sheer energy of Abercrombie Quartet, it could be argued that it contains the strongest and most varied collection of tunes.

The good news is that now that all three albums are bundled together as part of ECM's Old & New Masters collection (for those unfamiliar with the format, the CDs are each packaged in a simple cardboard sleeve, contained by an elegant compact cardboard box, along with a booklet), there's no need to choose. Even though they represent Abercrombie's initial output as a leader, they remain potent and evergreen. They have barely dated at all, and should be welcomed by any Abercrombie fan. It's good to have them all available again.

Track Listing: (Disc 1) Arcade; Nightlake; Paramour; Neptune; Alchemy; (Disc 2) Blue Wolf; Dear Rain; Stray; Madagascar; Riddles; Foolish Dog; (Disc 3) Boat Song; M; What Are The Rules; Flashback; To Be; Pebbles.

Personnel: John Abercrombie: guitar, mandolin guitar; Richie Beirach: piano; George Mraz: double bass; Peter Donald: drums.

Title: The First Quartet | Year Released: 2015 | Record Label: ECM Records

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